Plans by the R.S.P.B. et al to wipe out one of the only two remaining British colonies of ship rat in early 2003.

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With sufficient publicity it may still be possible to save the unique and historic strain of Lundy ship rats. Joan and Roger Branton, a couple who are experts on the ship rat, visited the island in April 2003 and could find no evidence of surviving rats; but the RSPB reckoned there were 20 still alive at that point, whom they were doing their best to kill even though rodent-experts had offered to catch them and remove them from the island.

The Brantons found poisoned bait left out in traps wide enough to allow rabbits etc. to enter and be killed, and in some cases poisoned bait was exposed where visitors' children, and the Red Listed song-thrush, could easily get at it. There were no notices warning visitors of the presence of deadly poison. A cruel drowning-trap was also found.

They found that since their previous visit to the island in the '80s, the eco-system has been largely destroyed - apparently mainly due to excessive tourism. Wild flowers which had formerly flourished were now almost entirely absent. Large areas which had been covered by rhodedendrons (which are invasive and do need to be controlled) had been burned back and then not replaced by any plants of equivalent size, and this had resulted in massive soil-erosion as the rhodedenrons had actually been holding the cliffs together. The team carrying out the rat-extermination were compounding the problem by roaring around this fragile environment on quad bikes. In fact it's astonishing that any birds except pigeons and crows still nest there.

As a result of evidence collected by the Brantons, the cull was suspended in May 2003 on the orders of the Health & Safety Executive, and of the RSPCA. This may be shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, as it's questionable whether any rats from this unique colony have survivied; but if there are any rats left they now have a chance to recover. Your letters can help make the temporary suspension of the cull permanent.

Also in May 2003, it was reported that the puffin colony on Coquet Island, Northumberland, had disappeared. In 2002 there had been more than 37,000 adult puffins on Coquet; in 2003 there were less than 200. Experts believe that the puffins simply decided the island was overcrowded and that they were going to go nest somewhere else; and nobody suggested that it was the fault of any rats, at all.

Lundy is a small island 11 miles off the coast of Devon, in south-west England. At time of writing, early in 2003, it is inhabited by one of the only two remaining established colonies of ship rat in Britain (the other being on the Shiant Islands in the Hebrides), as well as the usual/inevitable raffish collection of Norway rats.

Until the mid 18th C the ship rat, a.k.a. The Old English Rat, was the only rat in Britain: it is the rat of legend, the rat mediaeval barns were rife with. The Lundy rats are believed to have swum ashore from a shipwreck of the Spanish Armada. They are unusually small - about gerbil-size - and have a high proportion of white-bellied agoutis, a colour very rare elsewhere in the world. They cohabit amicably with the neighbouring Rattus norvegicus colony, disproving the Victorian idea that the invading Norway rat deliberately killed the native ship rat (rather than out-competing it).

The ship rat colony has lived on Lundy for 400+ years, and the Norway rat colony has been there for about 200 years, without apparent ill effect on the island's puffins and Manx shearwaters. In the last few decades, however, seabird numbers have fallen.

Dr Keith Hiscock, marine biologist and long-standing member of the Lundy Field Society, reports that the rare and interesting sea-life all around Lundy is in sharp decline as at spring 2003. Since the seabirds on Lundy are fish-eaters, one need look no further than the decline in nearby fish-stocks to explain the decline in birds.

Occasional predation of bird-chicks has been reported - in an area well away from either rat colony, on an island inhabited by gulls, peregrine falcons, domestic cats and deer (who kill ground-nesting birds and suck out their bones for the calcium to make antlers).

R. rattus is primarily vegetarian, and the Lundy strain are tiny and very lightweight in build. Some years ago a couple called Joan and Roger Branton ran a ship rat domestication project using animals wild-caught on Lundy, and found that these rats had no interest in meat and and were unable to recognize bird-eggs as food.

However, the Lundy Seabird Recovery Project, a coalition between English Nature, the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (R.S.P.B.) and a tourist organization called the Landmark Trust, has decided the fall in seabird numbers must be due to predation by the ship rat. The sole evidence is that two ship rats were found to have feathers in their stomach contents: unsurprizing, since rats are scavengers and the island is littered with the carcases of seabirds killed by gulls.

The L.S.R.P. claims there are "up to" 40,000 rats on Lundy: but repeated scientific surveys have put the ship rat colony at around 400 individuals (the normal size for a wild rat colony), plus a similar number of Norway rats.

If the rats were predating on seabirds it might be desirable to cull them to relieve pressure on the bird colonies, even if the decline in birds was due to lack of fish. But one could equally say a decline in seabird numbers is a good thing because it relieves pressure on the increasingly rare fish.

Nor is extermination neccessary even if the ship rats were taking eggs. The Shiant population is maintained at around 200 individuals by judicious culling, and cohabits with the local seabirds without harm. But since January 2003 the L.S.R.P. has been attempting to poison all the rats on Lundy, using second-generation rodenticides not licensed for outdoor use. These will not only cause suffering to the rats but will get into the food-chain and kill the islanders' cats, as well as any birds which scavenge on the carcases of poisoned rats.

The L.S.R.P. regards the ship rats as of no scientific interest because they are "not indigenous". However, ship rats probably came to Britain with the Romans - i.e. they've been here as long as brown hares, and twice as long as rabbits, both of which we treat as native species.

Worldwide ship rats are not endangered: indeed they are one of the commonest mammals on earth. But they are probably the rarest mammal in Britain, with a total population less than 1,000 - and it's a crying shame to wipe them out: especially as there's no scientific evidence that doing so will do the seabirds of Lundy the slightest good.

The real reason for this mass extermination is that the Landmark Trust, which promotes bird-watching holidays, feels that the rats are untidy and bad for tourism. In fact ship rats are pretty and playful creatures, and Britain's rarest mammal would be a major tourist attraction in its own right if they would only promote them properly. This is the preferred option of the Lundy Field Society.

[It occurs to me that the Landmark Trust's increasing promotion of Lundy as a tourist destination must mean an increase in the resident human population, to cater for those tourists. An increase in the human population nearly always means an increase in the cat population - and cats, much as I love them, are the major predator on British birds.]

The British charity Animal Aid has produced a leaflet campaigning against the extermination. For copies of this leaflet, and further details of how you can help, please 'phone their office on 01732 364 546 ext. 29, or e-mail them at info@animalaid.org.uk.

Anyone who is concerned about the destruction of this unique colony should write a.s.a.p. to the following organizations, and to the Britsh press:

English Nature
Dr Andy Brown, Chief Executive, Northminster House, Peterborough, PE1 1UA.
Tel.: 01733 455 000 Email: andrew.brown@english-nature.org.uk

The Landmark Trust
Peter Pearce, Director, Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshure, SL6 3SW
Tel.: 01628 825 417 Email: s.wilkinson@landmarktrust.co.uk (Peter Pearce's P.A.)

The National Trust
Fiona Reynolds, Director General, 36 Queen Anne's Gate, London, SW1H 9AS
Tel.: 0207 222 5097 Email: fiona.reynolds@nationaltrust.org.uk

Graham Wynne, Chief Executive, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire, SG19 2DL
Tel.: 01767 680 551 Email: graham.wynne@rspb.org.uk

Animal Aid asks members of these organizations to write telling them that they are considering withdrawing their membership over this issue: and non-members to write to the above addresses raising the following points:

Slaughter in the name of coservation is inhumane and a waste of resources.

[Myself, I don't entirely agree with this one - at least, I accept that there are some situations where destruction of introduced animals is the only practical way to save a rare species. But to slaughter an extremely rare animal to save a moderately rare animal, when there isn't even any evidence that the extremely rare animal is any threat to the moderately rare one, is not only inhumane and wasteful - it's bloody ridiculous. The sole logic seems to be "Feathers good: fur bad."]

Ask these groups why they think that the puffin population has only started to decrease over the last few decades, after co-existing with black ship rats for hundreds of years.

The use of poison is inhumane, and there is the real possibility that other species might accidentally be attracted to the bait.

[This is not to mention that other species - cats, dogs, scavenging birds - will quite definitely eat poisoned rat-carcases and be killed themselves.]

I myself would add the following to this list:

Ask these organizations why they are telling the press, BBC etc. that there are up to 40,000 rats on Lundy, when repeated scientific surveys place the ship rat colony at only 400 individuals, and the Norway rat colony not much bigger?

Ask them why they are just telling the press, BBC etc. that they are simply exterminating "rats" and not that they are wiping out one of the only two colonies of the rarest mammal in Britain?

Ask them why they are telling the press, BBC etc. that the rats came to Lundy off passing ships - but not that they did so half a millenium ago, and are a unique and completely isolated population with many interesting features which they are about to destroy forever?